Active Shooters: The Five Myths

Why do we create myths?

Here’s a truth: Active shooters are an unfortunate part of our world that we do not understand. And here’s a myth: There is nothing we can do about it. The increase in media coverage of active shooter situations has given us a new opportunity to understand the situations like never before. However, we do not always take that opportunity. We can talk about the incidents, but that does not mean we fully understand them. People have tried their best to make sense of the tragedies, but those well-meaning attempts have created some common myths about active shooters. The first step to truly understanding active shooters is to dispel the common myths about them so that we can access the truth. These truths, however, may be more shocking than the myths.

Myth #1: There is a profile for active shooters.

According to the FBI and, an active shooter profile looks something like a “young, white male who feels entitled and has been bullied (or marginalized), who has access to guns at home [simply because he cannot get them anywhere else legally], is an honor roll student from a good community, has intolerant attitudes toward racial or religious minorities, possesses a superiority attitude, has poor coping skills, and exhibits distorted thinking relative to negativity he perceives from others.” While this is indeed the trend and a helpful tool, it is dangerous to place people in an airtight box of a profile. The reality is that the idea of an accurate profile for an active shooter is in itself a myth, and if you focus too much on the profile, you will miss something important. There is no true profile. Active shooters have had numerous motivations, have been of multiple different races, and have even been female, though not recently. Projecting a profile on someone keeps us from seeing a potential active shooter who may not fit that profile.

Myth #2: He just snapped/It came out of nowhere.

We tell ourselves this to compensate for the lack of knowledge of what to look for. While we may not be able to profile an active shooter using physical characteristics, we can look to the similarities in actions taken among that group. Active shooters do not just randomly wake up with murderous thoughts. The events are carefully executed and methodically planned for months and possibly years in advance. Acquiring guns is a noticeable step, especially since most active shooters used guns acquired from home since they cannot legally purchase one. While the individual victims during an actual incident may be chosen at random, the larger targets are not. They are often soft targets with few to no guns, where the shooter will have little resistance. Keen observation and knowledge of what to look for will be helpful in targeting potential active shooters before they act.

Myth #3: Shooters tend to be people with low self-esteem.

Many people also believe that shooters have low self- esteem or are on the fringes of the school community. In reality, shooters tend to be more narcissistic, believing they are uncommonly special and unable to function in a world where they are considered or treated normal. They feel they deserve something they were denied, whether something as simple as an average test grade, being rejected by a love interest, or being passed over for a promotion. Their narcissism combined with the public grievance they hold against a world that dared to treat them like a normal person can lead to violent tendencies if there is not a positive outlet or coping mechanism for that energy. In school environments, they tend to be the ones who are successful and involved on the school campus. Only in a few cases was the shooter part of the “fringe” group on campus. The proposed formula, then, for an active shooter is Narcissism + Public Grievance – Healthy Coping Mechanism. This truth is actually very encouraging. If we can locate those students who seem to have a higher than normal self-esteem and help them to find a healthy coping mechanism. This may help to catch some potential shootings before they happen.

Myth #4: Shooters make specific threats on their target.

This myth is of extreme importance for school administrators and safety personnel to understand. Shooters tend to be seeking attention. The whole point of the act is to gain notoriety and infamy, therefore to warn the target is completely counter-productive. However, this does not necessarily mean that the shooter will act without warning. The threats will simply not be specific. Instead, they will be non-specific threats like, “You’ll be sorry” or “You better pray that you aren’t at school on Tuesday.” Threats like this are typically said to other students or peers rather than teachers or parents. And those students who receive the vague threat may or may not know to do anything about that threat. Thus, we get the illusion that the shooter told someone about the planned attack. However, while we cannot rely on the fact that the shooter will warn someone before he commits the act, we can be aware that these vague warnings at least provide something to pay attention to. If students are taught to report those seemingly meaningless threats, it could play a role in catching a potential active shooter before it happens.

Myth #5: Shooters are unstable people, either from a mental issue or drugs and alcohol.

In truth, shooters are becoming more and more normal. Only about a third of active shooters were even seen by a psychiatrist, and only about one-fifth of them were actually diagnosed with an issue. Many of the shooters had felt bullied, persecuted, or injured, and felt that no one cared or paid attention to the issue. However, considering that the recent shooting in Santa Fe, Texas was purportedly over a girl’s rejection of the shooter and linking that to the narcissistic tendencies of active shooters, the reports of shooters who felt persecuted or attacked is not surprising. The second piece of that myth is that shooters are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In truth, however, shooters tend to be completely clean from substances for weeks in advance.

These myths and their corresponding truths are not meant to arouse fear but rather empowerment. Knowing the potential threats should be a source of power from which to understand the threat among us. While it is impossible to predict an active shooter event 100% of the time, it is possible to be aware of some otherwise hidden or overlooked warning signs. Understanding the shooter’s thoughts and motivations is a productive first step in active shooter prevention and preparedness.

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